“I can still remember how I was awestruck by the beauty of Founders Chapel, especially the gold reredos, when I saw it for the first time,” she said. “During my years as a student, through graduation in 1986, Founders Chapel was the place to be on Sunday nights for Mass. This tradition has remained, still, after all of these years.”
Founders Chapel is certainly a meaningful symbol of tradition for an academic institution founded in 1949 — 65 years ago — as the San Diego College for Women. Designed and planned by co-founder Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill, the chapel took 16 months to build. While the first classes occurred on Feb. 11, 1952, the Italian botticino marble altar didn’t arrive until September 1952. Bishop Charles Francis Buddy initially blessed the altar and presided at the first Mass in an unfinished Founders Chapel on Sept. 25, 1952.
But it wasn’t until Feb. 2, 1954 — 60 years ago — that the dedication ceremony of the completed Founders Chapel took place. More than 500 people attended the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Solemn Pontifical Mass. It was part of a three-day celebration that included the consecration of the altar.
Sixty years later, Founders Chapel still offers the campus community and all visitors an authentic and active connection to history.
“Founders Chapel always has a special fragrance. The wood used was so fresh then,” remarked Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ, who is a 1957 San Diego College for Women alumna (and MA in 1974) who arrived in 1953 and was present at the dedication. “I still remember that when I go in now. There’s a certain something from that wood. It’s very special.”
It was the chapel for the College for Women and where Religious of the Sacred Heart prayed. Rodee said Mass was celebrated the first Friday of each month and students wore caps and gowns for what was treated as a formal occasion. Mother Hill’s Golden Jubilee Mass (picture, top right) was celebrated by Bishop Buddy in the chapel on Feb. 11, 1957.
Rodee, current assistant vice president for University Mission and Ministry, visits the chapel often and gives historical tours. “If I’m in Founders (Hall) I always stop in. It’s the place where I pray for the university, the students, faculty, staff administrators and about whatever’s going on. It’s the place to just give it all to God and trust that everything will be well.”
Founders Chapel seems to provide everyone a personal moment, memory or an appreciative expression.
A student attending this past Sunday night’s mass said it “completes her week” and it is important to her “USD experience.” Another said the same mass begins, doesn’t end her week, rather it puts her in the right mindset to tackle Monday’s return to a whirlwind of academics, club meetings and other activities. One said Founders Chapel is a “home away from home,” and she often attends the daily mass at 12:15 p.m., Wednesday’s 9 p.m. Mass for Peace and the popular Sunday offerings available at 7 and 9 p.m.
Alumni return to Founders Chapel to get married — often with fellow alumni as bridesmaids and groomsmen — and to have their children baptized. They also enjoy attending the special Alumni Mass during Homecoming and Family Weekend and at Christmas time.
What’s also comforting is having Toreros help others Toreros to plan a life-changing day. Darlene Polak, the current wedding coordinator, has been connected to USD for 37 years as an alumna, as a parent whose daughter is a double alumna and an employee. Her son got married in the chapel last May.
“As work environments go, having my office located in the sacristy of the chapel is one of the most calming settings imaginable,” Polak said. “The beauty of the sacristy and chapel itself is awe-inspiring. But most important for me is the constant reminder that Jesus is here with me as I go through my work day.”
Gualtieri, who is the chapel’s coordinator and Sacristan and has worked in it since 1989, agrees: “There have been many heartfelt and touching moments and experiences, as well as significant times when I’m reminded there is something greater, that God is at work and truly present through the Holy Spirit.”
One incredible example of Gualtieri’s assessment occurred just last year when she made a completely unexpected, major discovery involving Mother Hill.
“I noticed that the original linen lining of the bottom of the tabernacle was frayed,” she explained. “When I lifted it out to replace it, underneath were several hidden documents, including a note of thanks and a prayer written by Mother Hill close to 60 years ago. It said, ‘For all who will work and pray in this College in the years to come … for all students now and in the future.’ I felt it was meant to be found at that time.”
Sixty years later, having Mother Hill’s thankful words are as cherished as the place where she left them. It’s the place where Rodee found her call to lead a religious life. It is, she said, “the center, the heart” of USD.
“For the past 60 years Founders Chapel has served as the heart of our USD faith community and story teller for our mission and history,” said Monsignor Daniel J. Dillabough ’70, who is vice president for the university’s Mission and Ministry. “From the sisters whose prayer in the chapel began and closed every day in the early years to the voices and music of vibrant, faith-filled students who still celebrate liturgy every Sunday, to the weddings and baptisms that have marked the lives of so many of our alums and friends, Founders Chapel is a reminder that Christ is at the heart of our mission.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Top photo courtesy of USD Archives